Monday, February 18, 2019

A Private War – unravelling the private and public contradictions at the heart of war correspondent Marie Colvin

Later this week sees the seventh anniversary of the death of the legendary Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin, killed when her impromptu media base in Homs, Syria was shelled on 22 February 2012.

Lindsey Hilsum’s terrifyingly honest biography In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin kept me awake into the wee small hours over Christmas reading about the seemingly fearless yet troubled journalist. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Photographer Paul Conroy was with Colvin on her final assignment, and had worked with her for many years. He delivered the annual Amnesty Lecture at Belfast Festival in 2014. His appearance, promoting his book Under the Wire, was so popular that it sold out and he somewhat traumatically repeated his talk immediately afterwards to meet demand.

The Marie Colvin from those books is brought to life in the film A Private War, detailing her style of journalism and peeking between the sheets of her private life.

The film picks up in Sri Lanka where Colvin lost the sight in her left eye. It wasn’t an excuse to stop travelling and reporting. With a near reckless bravery, she ran into situations while others withdrew or stayed away: she was compelled – probably addicted – to war reporting. Caring for vulnerable people caught up in conflict more than the reasons for the conflict, she often highlighting the plight of women and children as a way of connecting western audiences with the horrific situations she encountered, giving voice to the voiceless.

Colvin was a charismatic figure that instilled loyalty (“we have to go” she tells colleagues), was dogged, temperamental, ignored advice, unreliable, was hard to manage, was bad about ‘phoning home’ to the Sunday Times foreign desk and continually challenged by technology (she jinxed laptops and once ran up a five figure satphone bill). She wore the finest underwear in the field, about her only luxury other than cheap cigarettes. She interviewed PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi on multiple occasions, asking tough questions but staying in relationship.

Rosamund Pike brings the central character to life, unravelling the private and public contradictions of a woman who was both wracked with anxiety yet fearless under pressure, an alcoholic yet could be sober when reporting, sensual yet able to work and sleep in primitive conditions. With tousled hair tied back and wearing the trademark eyepatch, Pike’s Colvin is lean and upright.

Jamie Dornan plays photographer Paul Conroy, the main witness to Colvin’s final moments. He captures the somewhat blasé attitude I saw in Conroy when he was in Belfast, and the Scouse accent mostly stays intact.

The Sunday Times foreign editor Sean Ryan is played by Tom Hollander, capturing the tension between wanting his ‘prize pig’ to deploy overseas to bring in the stories and wanting her to stay alive. Though at times, Hollander seems smug and derivative of some of his other high profile roles.

Colvin told stories about the human cost of conflict, “finding truth” while “writing the rough draft of history” and injecting her own feelings and emotions into pieces that could otherwise have been merely factually shocking reports about terrible atrocities. But her writing didn’t acknowledge the panic attacks, sadness at being childless, multiple partners and fear of aging and dying.

As well as being a tribute to Colvin’s unique attitude and style, A Private War reminds audiences about the appalling situations that she reported from, bringing forgotten and continuing horrors back to public attention. She might have liked that, even if the rest of the film might have embarrassed her.

The strength and clarity of her words in live audio interviews with TV broadcasters around the world was likely to have intensified the targeting of her shelter and ultimately cost her her life. While Paul Conroy escaped with injuries, another photographer Rémi Ochlik was also killed in the raid.

Director Matthew Heineman crams a lot in to the 110 minutes to give a good flavour of the character and the conflicts. The quotes from Colvin’s articles and snippets from an interview about her style of reporting give a sense of the character driven to be reckless in order to make a difference.

Each new reporting trip is captioned with the time ‘before Homs’, building up the sense of forbearing. Yet the journey through the tunnel to Homs is rushed and underwhelming – much better described in the books – with effort instead put into the later hair-raising journey by road ‘dodging’ bullets and rockets to reach the media centre. But the ending is strong, rising up from a singular incident to survey the devastation that the city of Homs suffered.

The lights came on far too soon in the Lisburn Omniplex, diminishing the intensity of Annie Lennox’s song that plays over the closing credits and images of some of Colvin’s reportage in the Sunday Times.

A Private War is only showing in a handful of Omniplex Cinemas (including Lisburn and Dundonald).

Friday, February 15, 2019

Ruby – warts and all tragedy of Belfast talent troubled by anxiety and alcoholism (Lyric Theatre + NI tour)

Driving down the Donegall Road yesterday, I counted three poster displays linking Ruby Murray with the area. After today, there’ll be a fourth mention with the erection of a blue plaque to recognise the singing sensation born in south Belfast.

A few years ago, playwright Michael Cameron was sitting near me in an opening night audience at The MAC. During the interval we chatted and he mentioned that he was working on a play about Ruby Murray. I knew the name, but couldn’t have listed anything she sang, though it turns out I could have hummed along with most if you’d played them.

Then last May, I was present at a read-through of some scenes in East Side Arts Centre and could begin to piece together the troubled life story behind this musical star as I listened to a story that was darker and more complex than I had realised. Cameron’s mentor Sam McCready was directing proceedings, adding his silvery touch to the emerging work. Sadly he died early this week before the show opened.

The full production of Ruby directed by Richard Orr is now in the middle of a sold out run in the Lyric Theatre before embarking on a regional tour. Seated in a comfy armchair in a Torquay nursing home, the retired and ailing singer addresses the Lyric audience as if we’re sitting on a sofa opposite her. While sedentary for the majority of the performance, Actor Libby Smyth creates an intimate atmosphere and you begin to believe that this plainly dress woman once had her hair lacquered back and belted out hits in her distinctively husky voice. The play builds to an emotional crescendo and Smyth channels frustration and disappointment in those final moments.

Fortified by a wee drink or two, she reminisces about wartime evacuation as a child – a very bad experience that haunted her for the rest of her life – and the unexpected road to musical success that began singing in pubs and peaked by topping the bill at the London Palladium. The oft-quoted fact of having five singles simultaneously in the top twenty is remarkable. She worked with Norman Wisdom, her bête noire Alma Cogan, Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Laine and a rash of other household names.

Belfast audiences seem to revel in donning their rose-tinted spectacles to look back the good old days in Belfast, and the last year has featured a feast of shows in the Lyric served up to meet this nostalgic appetite: Paperboy and Good Vibrations. Ruby adds to that list with its dark tale of what goes up must come down.

Ruby’s story is blighted with poor business advice, serial exploitation, and the effects of alcoholism on her family and her own health, an all too common trait of Belfast stars. The script is honest about the physical violence she meted out on her husbands. I can see why this isn’t the first time a playwright has tackled her bittersweet story with Marie Jones creating a show with the same name back in April 2000.

If you sat down in the black Mastermind chair after the end of the 80-minute performance, you probably wouldn’t embarrass yourself answering questions on Ruby Murray’s given the information in the play. Yet Cameron’s mature and pared-back script conveys it all in a very natural way, and I never felt like I was being given another fact, just another facet of the story. The monologue is chronological and recounts enough drama that it doesn’t warrant other theatrical bells and whistles.

Performed as a tragedy rather than a musical celebration, only snippets of Murray’s hit songs are injected into the performance. But they’re well-chosen and apt with the prescience of the opening “I shall always hope and pray / That you love me in the end” making sense in the final scenes of the play as the state of her relationship with first husband Bernie Burgess is revealed.

Ruby is a promising work by a relatively new playwright. In the retelling of her life story, Cameron succeeds in celebrating the talent without papering over the trials and tribulations that blighted success.

The sold out run in the Lyric Theatre continues until 17 February, before touring through Marketplace Theatre, Armagh (Thursday 21 February – sold out), Web Theatre, Newtownards (Friday 22 February – sold out), Craic Theatre, Coalisland (Saturday 23 February), Alley Theatre, Strabane (Thursday 28 February), Island Arts Centre, Lisburn (1 March – sold out) and Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey (Saturday 2 March).

Photo credit: Dave Pettard

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Ubu The King – let battle commence in this absurd disrupted food court (Tinderbox at The MAC)

The normal rules of theatre suggest keeping the audience in rows, keeping the action on the stage, and avoiding mess. But the first rule of Tinderbox Theatre Company is to tear up normality and challenge comfortably-held beliefs.
“Kill the King and take the crown for yourself”

Ubu The King adapts of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi which was first performed in Paris in 1896 and was followed by a riot. A vulgar kitchen porter stages a management coup and takes over a patisserie kitchen. Soon the other staff who supported his popular uprising realise that he is making empty promises and behaving like the show horse head chef he emasculated and replaced.

The absurdist nature of Jarry’s work is quickly apparent as kitchen utensils are repurposed as puppets, masks and an army of forks. Ciaran Bagnall’s set has the air of a cooking school installed in an abattoir with stainless steel worktops sitting on top of a distressed metal floor, enclosed inside a heavy translucent plastic curtain.

Rhodri Lewis plays Ubu, a disruptive upstart with a grizzly sense of comedy who begins by acting the lig and playing up to the audience of thirty sitting on raised platforms around the food court. Soon less savoury bullying behaviour is on display. Meanwhile Julie Lewi, Jo Donnelly and Claire Connor are kneading dough, whisking ingredients and sifting cocoa powder over buns while Tony Flynn minces around with a clipboard playing head chef.

The dialogue is sparse and sometimes the detail of what is said – along with the lyrics of Katie Richardson’s bespoke music – gets lost in the general melee of the hellish kitchen. Yet director Patrick J O'Reilly makes sure that the choreographed dance sequences and physicality of the clowning wordlessly imparts the changing power relationships that drive this demonstration of brutalist anarchy and extreme behaviour.

It reminded me of a third form history lesson in which ‘Red Ken’ meandered away from the First World War curriculum to instead explain the spectrum of political activity and opinion, from far left to far right. The workers feel that “when we are together we are unstoppable” but they fail to appreciate how they are being manipulated (including celebrating previous conflicts when the new leader is under threat). Under the horseshow theory, sometimes those on the far left become bedfellows of the far right.

Wearing similar protective clothing to the cast to shield us from spillage or flying ingredients, the audience are invited to vocally collaborate and become complicit in condoning the bullying and intimidation happening feet away from our ringside seats.

We realise that what is being acted out is merely a representation of the real life power games that continue to dominate modern office life, churches, politics and communities across Northern Ireland and beyond. Ubu could be Donald Trump. Equally he could be Arlene Foster, Mary-Lou McDonald or Jeremy Corbyn. Or maybe he’s you … or me.

Ubu the King is experimental. During the 70-minute performance, there are moments of entertainment among the more absurd and confusing scenes. It’s not a terribly satisfying piece of theatre – I doubt it even intends to be – but it certainly succeeds in being thought-provoking.

Continues in The MAC until Saturday 23 February.

Photo credit: Ciaran Bagnall

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk – immerse yourself in a beautifully-told story about love and racial injustice (from 14 February)

Fonny and Tish grew up in Harlem, playing together as friends. But in adulthood they’re falling in love and from our plush cinema seats we watch their lips finally lock. Their hesitant and adoring touch is breath-taking to watch in If Beale Street Could Talk. Yet just as their lives begin to inseparably interlock, a crooked justice system intervenes with a false charge of rape that sees Fonny held behind bars while he awaits a trial stacked against him.

Adapting James Baldwin’s novel, director Barry Jenkins has created a beautiful piece of unhurried cinematic storytelling. From the first time Tish asks “Are you ready for this?” the dramatic tension begins to tighten and the audience are left with questions … and trusted to figure out the answers without too much help. Flashbacks make sense without having to be labelled.

The near constant sound of jazz is restrained and mostly allowed to remain in the background. The costume colour palette matches the autumn leaves underfoot as the lover birds coo over each other. The camera lingers on full facial closeups as Fonny and Tish gaze across the dinner table or through the glass in the prison visitors’ room. Their conversation is shown to be as intimate as their lovemaking.

KiKi Layne and Stephan James’ faces switch between joy and trepidation. Layne is brimming with heart-felt empathy, wearing Tish’s vulnerability on her sleeve while James internalises Fonny’s fears until he allows them to explode out into the open. His physical failure in some later scenes adds to the darkness of the mood.

The two mesmerising central characterisations are backed up by great performances from Tish’s family sisterhood (Teyonah Parris and Regina King) and Fonny’s super-spiritual and over-judgemental clan (Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne).

If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of racism, prejudice and injustice through the eyes of one young woman whose fortitude and hope in the midst of change, uncertainty and new life is thoroughly uplifting. Funnier than Moonlight, it has a similar intensity and the same love of dreamy silence over wordiness.

You can immerse yourself in If Beale Street Could Talk from Thursday 14 February in the Queen’s Film Theatre, Omniplex and Odeon cinemas.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Kid Who Would Be King … either a Brexit parody or a pre-teen film steeped in Arthurian legend (cinemas from Friday 15 February)

After a brief bit of animated context setting to get everyone up to speed with the Arthurian legend and the evil sister Morgana who practices dark sorcery from her underground lair, action returns to modern day Britain and we meet The Kid Who Would Be King.

Alex (played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis) finds the sword Excalibur while running away from some bullies (Rhianna Dorris and Tom Taylor), encounters a youthful-looking wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie) who is sustained by fried chicken, specialises in enchanted clapping and sometimes reverts back into a physically-older form that looks like Patrick Stewart. Backed to the hilt by his tropefully-stout mate Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) with his trusty triangular shield, they set off to defeat Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) and save Britain from an eternity of slavery.

If Merlin’s explanatory dialogue and the pages from a book aren’t enough to follow what’s going on, people asleep at the back can take advantage of Bedder’s brief recaps which pepper the journey to Cornwall, Glastonbury and back home for the final battle.

While the plot is steeped in Arthurian lore, the film could have borrowed a ‘There and Back Again’ subtitle from The Hobbit along with a fire-breathing dragon, a quest through Mirkwood, and Stewart’s impression of a wispy-haired Gandalf, and throws in some quirky self-awareness of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

The Kid Who Would Be King could be a genius parody about the current Brexit debacle with May (let down by a parental Cameron) and Javid teaming up with bully boys Gove and Johnson to have a giant tug of war match with the evil Tusk (or Barnier) and save Britain from eternal servitude under the tentacles of the evil European Union. But May and Javid don’t have as many good ideas as Alex and Bedders, and Gove and Johnson could never be trusted to stand by them on their quest. So that’s only wishful thinking that the film has another layer.

The animation is good and the young acting is better than the script from writer/director Joe Cornish (of Adam & Joe fame). While the two long hours are full of creative ideas and situations, the pre-teen cinema audience and their parents deserve a better script that is not full of clichés, platitudes and truisms – “it’s a tough world out there and it’s getting tougher”, “how could telling the truth make everything worse?” – and unforgivable shouts of “I’ve got an idea!” and “I know!” to drive the plot forward.

The Kid Who Would Be King’s journey of self-discovery is keen – overly so – to teach lessons about fallen heroes, the power of the underdog, and the need for leadership. But my inner pre-teen sensibility is now nearly as long ago as the Knights of the Round Table, so who am I to cast doubt on the entertainment value of a film that I don’t want to remember at the end of year review in December.

Released in UK and Irish cinemas on Friday 15 February.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Sweeney Todd – close shaves and revenge served hot in a production that emphasises societal complicity by ignoring injustice (NI Opera at Lyric until 23 February)

A London man is wrongly imprisoned and banished to Botany Bay. When he returns he finds that he has lost his wife and daughter, and seeks revenge on the errant Judge. Returning to work as a barber above a pie shop, he conspires with his landlord and while he gets down to the somewhat grizzly business of cutting heads, she boosts the turnover of her business with a popular range of unsavoury savouries.

I’m not a particular aficionado of Stephen Sondheim’s work, so I appreciated that NI Opera’s coproduction of Sweeney Todd with the Lyric Theatre makes the story easy to pick up and follow. The cast – a mix of traditional opera singers and musical theatre artists – have good vibrato-free diction and get their tongues around the more rapid-fire lyrics.

Steven Page’s rich baritone voice expresses the emotion the frustration of the troubled man. Julie Mullins gives Mrs Lovett a bawdy music hall feel and is rewarded with audience laughs from early on in the show. Together they make a great couple until the bending of the truth behind her moral pragmatism pushes an already distraught Todd over the edge.

It’s good to see NI Opera Studio’s Jessica Hackett back on stage playing Todd’s daughter Johanna. She is now the ward of the seedy Judge Turpin (Mark O’Regan) whose sits in judgement of other people’s crimes while yoked to his own misplaced and sleazy lust for the young girl supposedly in his care. The pantomime villain of the piece, I’m surprised the stalls don’t boo or hiss.

Opera performances are typically larger than life, with extreme characters taking extreme actions in extreme circumstances. Dorota Karolczak’s elaborate distressed costumes and macabre make-up stand out when compared with ‘normal’ musical theatre productions and really add to the signposting of each character’s state of mind. Wolfgang Göbbel sporadic use of UV lighting adds an extra layer to the set, though the sideways beams across the cramped stage often leave actors in the dark and don’t fully light Joanna’s otherwise immaculately white satin boudoir.

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is a story about how one act of injustice can lead to brooding resentment and revenging actions with far reaching consequences. As if to emphasise our societal complicity in seeing injustice but not getting off our backsides to do anything to challenge or stop it, Karolczak set design uses wooden panelling that merges in with the Lyric’s main auditorium, and at points the patterned lighting extends beyond the stage to include the audience in the action.

While the first act gets off to a good start, it’s as if the handle on the mincer gets stuck and there’s a sense of drag in the performance by the time the interval arrives after ninety minutes. While it may be sacrilege to suggest it, some judicious trimming of the top heavy first half might preserve the energy and balance out the less-musical scenes.

Act two abandons the set’s rather neat revolving door and instead turns the wooden wall into a giant sliderobe with characters and rooms appearing somewhat randomly as panels are smoothly slid aside. In particular, the bejewelled barber chair switches from left to right which confuses, and the use of amplification sometimes makes it hard to discern where the actors are on the multi-level stage, particularly when Todd and Lovett pop out at the very top.

Highlights in this production include the shave-off between Todd and the flamboyant leather cat-suited Italian extortionist Alolfo Pirelli (Matthew Cavan), the duets between Todd’s daughter and her nautical lover (John Porter), and the talented, emotionally-flawless ‘common man’ Tobias Ragg (Jack Wolfe) who gets caught up in the sordid tale.

While the organ prelude was underwhelming and needs turned up to eleven to quell audience chatter as the show opens, the nine-piece band under the baton of Sinead Hayes are effective in delivering the musically complex score.

The cutthroat effects are stylish and comically gruesome to avoid being too naturalistic until the final wounding of the haunted protagonist. Director Walter Sutcliffe has created a consistently stylish show that relates its story with heaps of operatic pizzazz but none of the genre’s supposed stuffiness.

Sweeney Todd runs in the Lyric Theatre until 23 February.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

All Is True – Eastenders meets the House of Shakespeare in this delightful fictional tragicomedy about the Bard of Avon’s final years (from 8 February)

Ben Elton has history with Shakespeare but he has written the rather delightful tragicomedy screenplay for All Is True which, contrary to its title, imagines what might have been going on inside the head and house of Shakespeare in the last three years of the playwright’s life.

The story picks up after the fire burnt down the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII (whose alternative title was ‘All Is True’) and the Bard bows out of the cultural scene and retreats to Stratford-upon-Avon to spend time with his long-ignored family.

In what could have been a prequel for modern Eastenders, over 100 minutes Elton’s quill pens a story of accusations and cover-up, family secrets, reputation and legacy, grief, unfaithfulness, puritanism, illiteracy and self-confidence, and even has space for a ghost.

The dialogue is suitably theatrical and Shakespearean in style – though some modern aphorisms are allowed to sneak into the 1600s – as if the Bard had written one final autobiographical work to draw together the themes of his life.

Having been infected with a permanent case of writer’s block, a barely recognisable Kenneth Branagh confidently embarks on a spot of gardening and amateur horticulture to take his mind off the good old days in London and to try to dig his way into coming to terms with the death of his son Hamnet some 16 years prior.

Equipped with a chiselled beard and a false conk, Branagh delivers a deliberately-neutral performance that gives the audience space to size up his faults and failings without too many nudges from the director, and to empathise with the women in Shakespeare’s life – stolid and no nonsense Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), unhappily married Susanna (Lydia Wilson), and Hamnet’s gloriously unfiltered twin sister Judith (Kathryn Wilder) – and size up their motivations.

Ian McKellen pops in as the Earl of Southampton wearing a wig stolen from a pantomime Goldilocks and adds a smidgeon of cruelly-spurned bromance and some of the funniest lines in a scene that sprinkles yet more stardust over the film but could have been left out of the final cut (along with some of the longer recitals of Bill’s best bits by a less indulgent director and editor.

All Is True would be a beautiful film to watch even if you turned the sound down. Cinematographer Zac Nicholson deserves awards for near perpetual autumn tones and the distinctive framing (lots of over the visible shoulder shot and fixed views that allow headless people to wander in and out of shot).
“For family is everything …”
While there are moments in which Shakespeare nearly turns into a nineties man embracing his inner feminist and accepting the messiness of his wonderful family, the script always wrenches him back to his longing for a male grandson (even while his unnamed granddaughter sits at his table) and chuckles at the greatness of men who have sex with boys and girls. Shakespeare’s putdown to local snob Sir Thomas Lucy (Alex Macqueen) is classic Elton; however, the valedictory speech at the close lays it on too thick and too long.

Lifting the imaginary lid on the unexpectedly complicated house of Shakespeare, together with the beautiful landscapes and Elton’s snappy one-liners creates a charming film that works even if you only the most cursory memory of Shakespeare from school.

All Is True is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre and Movie House cinemas from Friday 8 February. Note that the QFT’s Saturday 9 morning show followed by a Q&A with Kenneth Branagh has already sold out.

Alita: Battle Angel – cyberpunk slasher roller derby dystopian triumph of motion capture and CGI over plot (from 6 February)

“Who am I?” asks the woman whose head and ‘core’ were found on a trash heap under a city in the sky and stitched together with the cyborg body created for someone special by Dr Dyson Ido. He breathes life into an amnesic woman who goes on to uncover the secrets of a cyberpunk world in which there could as easily be a bounty on your enhanced arm as your whole body.

The motion capture and mix of live-action and CGI in Alita: Battle Angel is the most impressive thing about this movie. The titular kickass hero with distinctive eyes is played by Rosa Salazar, ably transforming her movement and mannerisms to switch from a 14-year-old to an 18-year-old half way through the film (although flashbacks hint that the character is much older than that).

That may be good enough to warrant a trip to the cinema. Your stomach will lurch when Alita and her BFF Hugo (Keean Johnson) perch on the edge of the roof an old crumbling building. And the 3D version showing in some cinemas may be even crazier and more fairground fabulous. However, be warned …

Expositional dialogue abounds to educate the audience about the constraints of this geographically-compact multi-cultural dystopian society. The ‘no gun’ rule certainly makes the weapons so much more interesting. The goodie/baddie flag for every single character – other than Ido’s surgical nurse, played by Idara Victor who regularly appears on screen but is strikingly given no dialogue – toggles throughout the two hours of action.

Clichés are embraced with abandon, with Alita even donning a long trenchcoat before entering a bar to deliver an impassioned speech that made the cinema audience audibly smirk as well as the hardened bounty hunters in the drinking den. There’s even a spot of kissing in the rain.

While the manga roots of Alita are preserved – it’s based on Yukito Kishiro’s Gunnm – it’s a bit of a derivative mashup with Transformers-esque fighting machines, Samurai sword fighting that could make it a slasher movie (the action is pretty gruelling for a 12A when you forget that they’re not real people), the addition of Thor’s hammer (with added blow torch), lots of roller derby with a hint of golden snitch, not to mention Dr Ido’s imitation of Bagpuss, from which he must have learned as a child:
“We will find it, we will bind it / We will stick it with glue, glue, glue / We will stickle it / Every little bit of it / We will fix it like new, new, new”

Alita: Battle Angel ticks James Cameron’s boxes for having a strong central female lead character and exploring how humanity adapts to technology. Making the next two parts of the threatened trilogy would be able to reuse much of the technical setup cost invested in this first episode. However, the epic ambition in Cameron’s mind was not delivered in the script he wrote and the film costing close to $200 million that Robert Rodriguez directed.

Released two days before The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, I fear that everything is not awesome and this fantasy dystopia is going to be buried under a pile of brightly-coloured bricks until it is resurrected for Alita: The Two Towers when the protagonist will ascend to Zalem in the sky, to battle the evil scientist in charge and avenge the death of someone else’s pet.

Alita: Battle Angel is released in local cinemas on 6 February.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful – finding and choosing hope in the darkness of poor male mental health (Prime Cut tour)

In Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful, director Rhiann Jeffrey allows Malachy’s chirpy sense of humour to get the audience tittering from the second line of the play. Actor Simon O’Gorman, robed in his dressing down, begins to speak from a reposed position on a chunky sofa that seems more sturdy than his frame of mind.

His very male and middle-aged views on exercise, gravity and animals generate varying degrees of laughter, though the most fulsome shrieks of mirth from women – young and old – in the audience last night were saved for his treatise on vaginas.

In a year since its last outing at The MAC, so much is improved in this restaging of John Patrick Higgins’ play. The pretentious watery set and background music has been banished, allowing the playwright’s voice to break through, and giving the audience the freedom to more fully engage with the wit and pathos on display.

The Chuckle Brothers scene has us howling at Malachy’s humiliation. Anyone who has read Higgins’ reviews and rants will know that he has an exquisite way with words. It’s not a ‘nugget’; instead it’s the more supremely glorious “chicken in its little breadcrumb suit”.

We enjoy Malachy recounting the ups and downs of relationships, until the atmosphere changes in an instant when he explains about the tragedy that has shaped every subsequent day of his life. O’Gorman’s timing is perfect, as he quickly tacks back and forth with the prevailing emotional wind. Amusing melancholy is replaced with deep sadness, then outbursts of anger and frustration, before a dark despair finally settles over the bedsit.

What is normally locked up inside is given permission to be expressed and exposed. The tilted stage adds to the feeling that the character is being propelled into this descent by some unseen force; the mirrored panels that rise high above the stage remind the audience that we are with Malachy and, often, we are Malachy.

May we all remember that hope can be more sustaining than tormenting as we navigate the joys and sorrows of 2019. It’s a simple lesson that needs to be learnt, and one that Higgins’ play and O’Gorman’s performance does its damnedest to share.

Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful is staged by Prime Cut Productions alongside Fintan Brady’s East Belfast Boy (performed by the energetic Ryan McParland and reviewed last year) as part of a double bill examining male mental health. The production has finished its Belfast run in The MAC and is now touring through:
  • Roscommon Arts Centre (Friday 1 February)
  • The Everyman, Cork (Tuesday 5-Thursday 7 February)
  • The Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar (Monday 11 February)
  • An Grianán Theatre, Letterkenny (Tuesday 12 February)
  • Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick (Friday 15 February)
  • The Market Place Theatre & Arts Centre, Armagh (Saturday 16 February)
  • Project Arts Centre, Dublin (Monday 18-Wednesday 20 February)
Photo credit: Ciaran Bagnall

Destroyer – Nicole Kidman plays a damaged cop who vengefully revisits her undercover past

A new lead for an old case sends a traumatised and somewhat unorthodox LAPD detective Erin Bell back to find the head honcho of a gang she infiltrated while undercover with an FBI colleague. As she works her way up the criminal foodchain, Erin is violently reacquainted with former colleagues and the personal and professional decisions she made in the past.

Nicole Kidman takes the lead in Destroyer and strikes a gritty and dishevelled pose as a detective who eschews social niceties and whose tired body can barely keep up with the wear and tear of the job. From early on in the movie, her bloodshot eyes suggest that they’ve witnessed traumatic events. It’s the complete opposite of Kidman’s glamorous role as Queen Atlanta in Aquaman. No one stands in the way of Bell’s fist-throwing, gun-toting persona and unlike most female action leads, Kidman takes a lot of blows and bruises in the frequent fight scenes.

Theodore Shapiro’s disquieting music ups the tension with metallic strings while one dark scene of Russian roulette took me back to the 2005 black and white film 13 Tzameti (not the pointless 2010 remake). Jade Pettyjohn plays Bell’s wayward and headstrong daughter Shelby, a chip off the old block. Their fraught and angsty relationship plays well on screen as a sub-plot right up to the final serious mother/daughter chat that kills the pace of the movie.

Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay weaves together flashbacks that fill in the backstory of Bell’s earlier work with partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) and reveals the vicious nature of gang boss Silas (Toby Kebbell) with whom she’s out to settle a score.

Throughout the two-hour film, I’m left wondering why Bell’s partner allows her to work alone and accepts that she keeps him in the dark. It’s never explained and leaves a large hole in the credibility of the story.

The twist in the latter stages of the tale is well executed and will set your brain racing through the earlier film to reassess what you thought you were seeing and believing.

Kidman doesn’t shy away from the filthy lengths Bell will go to get information. Yet the storyline and pacing issues mean that the clever reveal, Kidman’s commitment to the script, the no-holds-barred brutality, along with the amazing makeup and prosthetics aren’t quite enough to deliver anywhere near the ambition of the premise.

Destroyer is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre, Movie House and Omniplex cinemas.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Vice – an interesting but unfocussed character assassination that falls short of its potential impact

Vice is a film that shows former US Vice President Dick Cheney to be – at one point, quite literally – a heartless power-monger who settled for getting his hands on the largest levers of power in the US rather than the absolute top title. Though, in some of the final scenes, screenwriter and director Adam McKay suggests that he is ready for the next generation of Cheney politicians – his oldest daughter Liz – to overcome his campaigning hurdle of younger daughter Mary’s sexuality in the pursuit of her political career.

Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney throughout his adulthood, from the drunk mediocre no-hoper who is challenged by his wife to “have the courage to be someone or I’m gone”, to pacing the hallways of decision-making and rising to become the youngest White House chief of staff before the setback of Ford losing the 1976 election to Carter, winning his way to be a congressman, Secretary of Defense, a private sector CIO, and engineering his way to become finally Vice President.

We drop into the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, the creation of the dodgy dossier (Tony Blair gets a few seconds of screen time) and the US population’s re-education to associate Saddam Hussein and Iraq with al-Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorist attack. Focus groups are shown to help reframe the words used to better persuade and less candidly explain government policy and the rationale for military action.

But the film’s truest purpose is to encourage its audience to think carefully about how power is grasped and at times stolen, used and abused. Vice asks questions about authority and accountability, using Cheney’s long-held keenness to find legal opinion that supports the notion of Unitary Executive Theory (basically, cover for whatever the President does to be legal because he is the President) as well as some of his specific actions in the hours after the 9/11 terrorist attack as a basis to suggest that the VP wanted to short circuit normal governmental checks and balances.

More often than not we hear Cheney’s inner thoughts than his words, but when he does, Bale speaks through the side of his mouth, pauses mid-phrase, and imitates the few Cheney-isms that are at all recognisable from public appearances. The physical transformation is impressive over the fifty year period the film studies. The steely-eyed decisiveness, often based on instinct and long-term threat management, is stirring, if not a little alarming.

Lynne Cheney is portrayed by Amy Adams as the antithesis of a feminist whose own glass ceiling will not limit her ambition for her husband who only needed to be given a stern ultimatum once. “I won’t ever disappoint you again” he promises her. Nearly always by his side, she supports, stands in and counsels her pet power project.

Given the half century timeline and the real life figures involved, the audience are necessarily introduced to a breath-taking cast of characters over the two and a bit hours. Along the way we’re introduced to the continuing adventures of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) as well as the side story of how Roger Ailes’ long-championed to change TV impartiality rules which led to the launch of Fox News. But the film is somewhat littered with too many people carefully wigged and made up to look like their real-life counterparts.

Nicholas Britell’s soundtrack barges into key moments of action with a clanking piano or a loud orchestration dominated by stabs of brass. It’s not subtle. But nothing about this film is. It’s a frontal attack on Cheney’s style of leadership and the Republican party and its supporters who allowed him to operate with near total power at the right hand of a weak President George W Bush. Sam Rockwell’s depiction of Bush as a small child in an important chair amplifies the differences between President and VP.

While I’d problems with the tone and flippancy of McKay’s earlier The Big Short, it’s exposé of financial mismanagement and the subprime mortgage crash was much more focussed and coherent than Vice.

The audacious alternate ending midway through the movie is probably the only laugh-out loud moment. A fly-fishing metaphor is lightly followed throughout the film, but Vice’s impact would have been greater if it had been more consistent humorous, satirical or educational. The film tries to be smart, even addressing the likely accusations of its liberal bias in a mid-credit scene before the cinema screen lights go up.

Dick Cheney is an interesting figure. However, overall, Vice comes over as a character assassination film that bears out a grudge against him and will reinforce whatever prejudice you enter the cinema with. It’s over-argued, and the self-admission that Cheney is a private man about whom little is known somewhat undermines the huge amount of imagination that has gone into the fictionalisation of his personal and political life.

Vice is being screened in Movie House, Belfast Odeon, Omniplex and Odyssey cinemas.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Can You Ever Forgive Me? – rich performances and evocative storytelling (from 1 February)

When an out-of-fashion biographer runs out of words and her agent ignores her as much as her creditors don’t, Lee Israel finds that other people’s words are a more lucrative – and enjoyable – way to earn a crust.
“A 51 year old woman who likes cats more than people”
Melissa McCarthy plays the unconventional character in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a light-fingered alcoholic who lives alone with her beloved cat. While researching for her next manuscript, she discovers an original typed letter from a celebrity tucked into a library book. When she is disappointed to discover that it is too boring to be collectable, she types on an outrageous postscript to boost its value and soon she finds herself using her study of literary characters to knock up fake memorabilia on a suite of old manual typewriters in order to pay her bills.

She meets Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) in a bar and the disgraced grifter is slowly woven into her world of fabrication and fraud. Superficially friendly, the chemistry between these pair of oddballs never totally turns into trust, but they usefully prop each other up and offer often-madcap opportunities to escape the daily grind.

McCarthy is beautifully morose, snapping out biting insults to all those around her in a way that communicates the quick wit and intelligence of her character. We feel Israel’s discomfort around people who (did) care for her (all except her landlord whom she treats with uncharacteristic generosity). As the author’s despondency intensifies and it becomes obvious just how many aspects of her life are out-of-control, McCarthy builds a persona that attracts audience empathy and downplays her criminal side.

Grant wallows in his own web of lies about his living quarters and health. He brings an otherworldliness and an alternative desperation to the fusty world of old books Israel lives in. He carries the flamboyant costumes with ease, and Grant’s demeanour portrays a frail humanity as we watch Hock’s health failing (he’s HIV positive).

Nate Heller’s jazz score gently animates the prolonged character study while Brandon Trost’s cinematography rather obviously and frequently pulls focus across a scene to steer the viewer’s eye from character to character in shots that tend to be longer than modern cinema usually enjoys. Stylistically, the film adopts a brown and beige colour palette like the old books that line the shelves of the disreputable dealers who accept Israel’s supply of fabricated memorabilia.

I’m often a critic of on-screen crimes being portrayed as victim-less. In this story, it is implied (particularly in the final scene) that the dealers are knowing accessories in the fencing of less-than-authentic items which are bought by those rich enough not to care.

The titular quote from Dorothy L Sayers asks a question. We know that Lee Israel remained proud of her fictional writing – it was truly some of her best creative work. Audiences will find it hard not to have sympathy with her position, particularly when the story is as well constructed and executed as Nicole Holofcener’s script and Marielle Heller’s direction.

There’s hardly been a film this year that isn’t derivative of a memoir, biography or history book. When it is realised to cinemas in a couple of weeks’ time, I half expect The LEGO Movie 2 to flash up “based on a true story” at the start! Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on Lee Israel’s self-penned confessional.
“Go out and make a name for yourself”

Death and disappointment are themes that run through much of the dialogue in the film. While the literary world has more than its fair share of penniless writers, the feeling of depression about not achieving your dreams is common to much of western society. Israel’s sense of failure extends from her words to relationships, and McCarthy shows this inner turmoil as she repels an attracted bookseller and is rebuffed by her worn down ex-girlfriend.

Can You Ever Forgive Me is a great piece of evocative storytelling with rich performances from the two central actors. In Movie House cinemas from 1 February and the Queen’s Film Theatre from 15 February.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened … burnt by Fyre: a tale of credit cards and influencers being used to suspend disbelief (Netflix)

There have always been influencers in society. Many years ago, film stars smoking a particular brand of cigarette would assign a coolness to a product that their fans would copy and purchase. People following what a politician says – rather than their strict party policy – is not a new thing.

Nowadays, Instagram is awash with people promoting brands and events. By reviewing theatre performances and films on this blog, I’m often engaging in a small way in the ‘critic’ corner of this universe of influencing. And while that type of work is well-established and well understood – I write critical reviews rather than spouting a sponsored advert or direct marketing (which really require an #ad or #sponsored tag to indicate it’s not natural) – it’s not unreasonable to conclude that I’m more likely to review a film or show that is previewed for free than one I need to spend my own hard-earned freelance pennies to get into. Feel free to click the Buy Me A Coffee link over on the right of this webpage if you enjoy it’s content! (Though sometimes I do independently book tickets and pay to see shows and film … and this year I’m keeping count to see how it balances out.)

FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened tells the story of Billy McFarland, an entrepreneur with an exclusive credit card membership scheme behind him, who moved onto his next big project: building an online platform called Fyre that would allow artists to be booked by mere mortals who had the money to contract them to perform, bypassing the need for agents and needing to know the right person to have a conversation in the ear of someone who could secure the band’s agreement.

In order to promote the under-development platform, the Fyre Festival was dreamt up. An exclusive sunny weekend of music and cuisine on a small Caribbean island. People would pay top dollar to be among the few to experience what others could only dream of attending.

And in order to promote the festival, a small planeful of supermodels were flown out to an island in the Bahamas to be filmed partying for a few days. US Rapper Ja Rule helps front the publicity. Promoted with an orange square that clicked through to a glossy bikini-filled video, Fyre Festival took off.

Meanwhile a team was assembled to meet the demand and the incredibly short timescale to stand up a new event in a remote location. Over 97 minutes, we see the “unflappable and delusional” Billy McFarland hustling to pull together an impossible goal. He’s fabulously calm while all around people are querying the viability of his latest dream.

People who questioned the viability of providing sanitation for thousands of people without existing infrastructure were swapped out. The first island of paradise feel through and eventually a neglected corner of Great Exuma was secured. Emergency tents left over from a hurricane were repurposed as luxury accommodation for people who thought they were booking more lavish.

The nature of the high-volume filming to support the initial influencer marketing and desire to capture behind-the-scenes footage of the festival build-up, along with the fact that so many people did not get paid, means that there was a ready supply of material with which the filmmakers to intercut with the interviews with crew and paying punters.

It takes a message from above – the heavens open and rain falls on the campsite on the eve of the first festival goers flying into the island – for the penny to drop, though it takes another 24 hours for clarity of thought to reach the top of the organisational tree.

In October 2018, McFarland was sentenced to six years in federal prison. If the Fyre Festival pyramid had a fraudster at its top, it had hard-working innocent people – like the hundreds of Bahaman workers who build the site – who were left unpaid. The caterer cries on camera as she explains how she used her life savings to pay her staff. She would continue to live on the island and couldn’t run away from her debt like the festival organiser.

I’ve never been to a music festival – the idea of spending any more nights in a tent does not appeal to me – though I’ve mixed sound for bands at non-music festivals and chaired, facilitated and reported from countless events and conferences. On a tiny scale I’ve an appreciation of the chaos of event management and can imagine how it grows exponentially into a teetering tower of malpractice when very novice heads are in sole charge.

At that level, FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is interesting to watch. It casts judgement on the human nature of both the organisers and those who funded it (the people for whom the greatest party could already be imagined in their heads).

It’s yet another wake-up call to pay less attention to the perfect bodies and perfect lifestyles on Instagram and the right-hand column of the Daily Mail website. While they continue to sell lifestyles that some people can afford, as a population we need to stop aspiring to joining them. We can’t all be trustafarians!

The documentary is also a powerful reminder that in a world that values influencers, what looks organic online is often organised and orchestrated behind the scenes.

And it is an object lesson in why everyone has a responsibility to keep their eyes open, the critical thinking function of their brain active, and to ask questions and refuse to be blindsided, it’s also a reminder that everything that glitters is not gold. Sometimes it’s just glitter poured over a turd and filmed in a good light.

(Hulu gazumped Netflix and released their own documentary Fyre Fraud about the Fyre Festival fiasco four days before The Greatest Party dropped. While Hulu agreed to pay Bully McFarland for an interview, the producers of the Netflix documentary (Jerry Media and Matte Projects) did not accede to his demands for money.)

Is That Too Hot? A close shave with bankruptcy threatens a salon at the heart of its community (The MAC until 10 Feb + NI tour)

Patricia Gormley’s second professionally-produced play is a hair-raising tale of the ups and downs of the staff and clients at Buns’R’Us, a fictional west Belfast hair and beauty salon.

Is That Too Hot? features young trainee Jolene who can barely work a kettle but has the ambition to graduate from just sweeping the floors. Ailing Granny Eileen shuffles in on rollator and relates all the gossip from the nearby sheltered housing, accentuated with malapropisms and outbursts of swearing that catch the audience off guard. Mrs Hughes Queues is a snob with a posh-sounding son and a fur hat that hopefully protects her ears from the slanderous gossip others spread about her. And then there’s jet-setting Chelsea Marie who has walked up more aisles than enough in her budget airline cabin crew job but now needs to hurriedly arrange her nuptials.

Christina Nelson twists her body into each of these characters, drawing each with their own set of mannerisms (a quivering leg, fiddling with buttons, flicking hair), a great set of accents and comic timing that allows a myriad of jokes to have the space to land and garner laughs from the willing audience.

This sequel to I’ll Tell My Ma benefits greatly from a second actor. Roisin Gallagher sustains the show playing the hair salon owner Olive who sports an impressive ‘updo’. Somehow in the midst of managing her staff and customers, she has forgotten to manage her finances and the future of her business looks bleak.
“I work all night I work all day / To pay the bills I have to pay”
The first sounds of the play, heard through the salon’s hi-fi, aptly set the scene for dramatic predicament facing Olive. While the build-up of jeopardy is patchy in the first half – which essentially introduces the characters and sets up the community spirit – the final climax and resolution is tear-jerking.

Directed by Alan McKee, the pair clearly enjoy bouncing off each other. Gallagher’s poise, eyebrows, empathy and pathos make her a believable salon owner who can relate to all the nonsense that comes through her door and lend a listening ear and a wee act of kindness.

Community theatre can be twee and cheap. But Is That Too Hot? is a well-constructed and well-observed piece of theatre that celebrates the best of community without having to shamelessly mock it. The local references and Glider gags anchor it in west Belfast, but the themes and characters are universal.

Is That Too Hot? is a sweet and warm introduction to the new year that certainly gave last night’s audience a lift. Its run in The MAC continues until 10 February after which it’ll tour through Lisburn, Cookstown and beyond!

Photo credit: Simon Fallaha

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Beautiful Boy – one family’s story about parenting and substance abuse

Parenting trap number 1 has got to be the desire to ‘fix’ your children. It starts innocently enough whether they fall over in a playground, graze a knee. Or maybe when they take a swipe at another toddler in a playgroup who has grabbed a brightly-coloured plastic object from their hand.

In the first instance you quickly eliminate the notion of wrapping them in a huge cotton wool cocoon and decide to stay within reach to scoop them up like a superhero before gravity brings them tumbling to the ground the next time. In the second you try and build up their resilience while teaching them to be assertive while falling into the trap of listing the obvious deficits in the other’s child’s character and its parents. It’s the beginning of helicopter parenting, the bane of school and college teachers’ lives!

There comes a point when you realise that not every bloodied knee can be prevented, and bad stuff happens in the world at age two and twenty-two. Part of parenting is to know when to let go, even though you dearly want to interfere or revert to ‘fix’ mode.

Beautiful Boy dramatizes the real-life story of David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff as told in their pair of memoires, Beautiful Boy and Tweak. When things go wrong, can and should David ever stop trying to ‘fix’ Nic?

The teenager seems happy in his isolated world of poetry and novels. But when he fails to come home for two nights, his father realises that all is not well and checks his son into an addition clinic. Relapse follows rehab as Nic jumps onto the helter skelter than only spirals downwards, while his journalist father, artist step-mother and remote birth mother try to figure what to do with the child who is addicted to crystal meth.

Beautiful Boy is a valid and relatable story, but it’s just one story of many, and perhaps the one that will appeal most to Amazon Studios’ ‘Prime’ demographic. It feels like little is achieved by dramatising several years of Nic Sheff’s life that couldn’t have been as candidly portrayed in a documentary.

In the same way Trainspotting is a story of working class drug use, Beautiful Boy is a tale of substance abuse in a white family of privilege. Money is rarely an object, neither for the parents in their attempts to divert a child from his path of self-destruction nor for the child who only ever steals a step-brother’s piggybank and gathers up some of his father’s old recording gear to fund his addiction.

From his leading role in Call Me By Your Name, we know that Timothée Chalamet is quite an acting talent. His face keeps changing and he successfully plays the many different versions of Nic: the one who sparks with joy; the one who deceives, promises the earth, and blames everyone around him; the one who really tries but can’t overcome the urge to replace the anxiety of sobriety by slipping back into a happier place of chemical fog; as well as the physically gaunt Nic in hospital.

Steve Carell plays David Sheff and certainly emotes a feeling familiar to many parents of being distracted in the workplace, overburdened by a family situation. He brings to life that need to grasp at every straw of illusive hope as well as portraying a reluctance to necessarily push the nuclear button to cut ties and protect the innocent from further damage.

My problems with the film shouldn’t override the joy at seeing difficult and unheroic parental situations being sensitively portrayed on the big screen. But at times it feels like the whole film was dropped on the floor during the editing process, leaving some scenes behind and others jumbled up when they were pieced back together.

Maura Tierney’s role as Karen Barbour (David’s second wife) is woefully under-developed while Nic’s fellow junkie friend Lauren (Kaitlyn Dever who recently popped up as Gary Hart’s daughter in The Front Runner) appears from nowhere more than half way through the film, shoots up, has sex and then disappears into the back of an ambulance never to be seen again. Perhaps that’s realistic, but it’s poor cinema.

For young couples visiting the cinema, Beautiful Boy may turn out to be a remarkably effective contraceptive, delaying notions of parenthood. It’s a tough road with no easy answers. Your beautiful child may not follow the path of Nic, but there’ll be plenty of other moments when you’ll reach for the Haynes Manual only to discover that the index disappoints.

Beautiful Boy is a salutary tale of how hard drugs get into your system and change how your brain responds, presumably one that a lot young people are already aware of, yet so many will be unable to dodge in their own lives. And a reminder that parents can’t be responsible for steering all the choices their children make – though that doesn’t stop us loving them all the more.

But in the end Beautiful Boy is not shocking. It doesn’t feel like the kind of film that deserves a miraculous ending. As the film spun around, descending towards the credits, I began to wonder whether the director Felix van Groeningen would be brave enough to divert from the source material and instead find painful closure in a funeral rather than a fresh start. For too many families – and I pause as I type to remember loved ones not too far away from me on the family tree – that is the tragic reality they face.

Beautiful Boy is playing in Movie House cinemas and Queen’s Film Theatre.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Mule – Clint Eastwood in a charming film with an ethically dubious subject matter (Movie House from Friday 25 January)

In The Mule, Clint Eastwood provides the latest addition to the film genre of ‘old man committing a felony’ and surpasses the recent success of Robert Redford’s The Old Man & the Gun.

Based on a true story, it’s a welcome return to the silver screen for the silver-haired actor and director who plays Earl Sharp, a grandfather who in earlier years put his career in horticulture (hybrid day lilies) above his family.

With finances tight (online selling knocked out his catalogue trade), he loses his home in Peoria and takes up an offer to earn money doing what he’s been doing best for the last sixty or more years: driving carefully across the country making deliveries without picking up any speeding tickets.

The size of the wad of banknotes stuffed into a brown envelope in the glove compartment of his pickup truck as payment surprises the somewhat naïve and incurious pensioner. He uses the money to invest in his family and the community, as well as buying a new set of wheels. “Who’d you have to kill to get a place like this?” Sharp asks the Mexican drug cartel leader who demands to meet his prize driver at his luxurious mansion.

In parallel with his rise to become one of the drug cartel’s most successful mules (transferring millions of dollars of heroine across states), there’s a new Drug Enforcement Agency investigator in town, Colin Bates (played by Bradley Cooper), who starts squeezing informants for information and slowly zero in on the cartel’s routes and their prize mule.

Eastwood visibly ages between the opening scenes which show Sharp in his late 70s and the main action 12 years later in his early 90s. Subtle changes in his gait, stoop and dodderiness, together with more pronounced wrinkles, make it a very believable transition and Eastwood (aged 88 at the time of filming) makes it feel very natural.

Despite Sharp’s glorious political incorrectness – due it seems to age and ignorance rather than any malice – there’s a warmth to his interactions with those supplying and receiving the bags that are loaded into the back. His Luddite relationship with modern technology is charming. His instinct is to help people … albeit somewhat at odds with his cargo.

Outside of Sharp’s family – in which the strains between his estranged wife (Dianne Wiest), daughter (Alison Eastwood) and granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) are well observed – women tend to be sex objects with single scenes and no backstory.

It’s a lovely film and a very pleasant watch. Saying that, I’m troubled and slightly haunted about the ethics of whether a film about drugs can be ‘pleasant’ or upbeat or celebrated. As a character Earl Sharp gets his comeuppance and finds redemption from the break in family relationships. But that’s not the whole story.

While the law tends to catch up with these old gangsters, like The Old Man & the Gun, Eastwood’s new film makes no reference to the true victims of the crimes, and the effect on the lives of those users taking the drugs. And while Sharp doesn’t take drugs, it is clear that he personally enjoys other vices that are not victimless.

Instead The Mule concentrates on one man’s late realisation that family is more important than work, even lucrative driving for bosses who become more tetchy and controlling as the value of the packages increase. It highlights our human desire to be ‘someone’ within our spheres of influence, the desire to find freedom (perhaps even in being caught) and to be loved.

There’s a good pace and some nice repetition to the 116-minute movie, much less lethargic than the aforementioned Redford’s bank heist, but travelling along under the speed limit with no need for jump cuts to squeeze in extra storyline. As tension builds in the plot, it is never allowed to translate to the soundtrack and you’ll be humming along with the easy listening tunes from Sharp’s car radio.

Overall, The Mule is much more accomplished compared with Eastwood’s last directorial disaster in the terribly flawed The 15:17 to Paris. However, the box office opportunity to see Clint Eastwood back at work is slightly marred by the odd selection of the story to be told.

The Mule opens in Movie House cinemas on Friday 25 January.